Confined in a microworld of levers, switches, and instruments, Royal Australian Air Force Flight Sergeant James Denman Harvey slid his Curtiss P-40’s eight-piece canopy backwards and looked down. Hammered by tropical heat and skin slippery in perspiration, he studied the surface of a newly captured airstrip called “Tadji.” Harvey and fellow No. 78 Squadron pilots believed ground engineers had repaired a landing area on the north coast of New Guinea after defeated Japanese soldiers scurried into the shrubbery on April 25, 1944.
Pictured above: David Hadfield handles the controls of the P-40N-1 Kittyhawk while he reacquaints James Francis “Stocky” Edwards with his former war mount. The plane is hangared with the rest of the Wings of Canada vintage aircraft collection at Gatineau-Ottawa Executive Airport. (Photo by Eric Dummigan)
Harvey watched the first P-40 in the landing pattern sequence touch and immediately flip. Apprehensive, but with no other choice since every aircraft’s low-fuel-pressure light flickered red after an exhausting positioning flight, he lowered the “alighting gear.” Concentrating on landing shorter and slower, his 30-inch tires and oleo-pneumatic shock struts locked into place under the 37-foot, 3.5-inch wings. At contact, he, too, went upside down in a flurry of lacerated leaves, shredded bark and surprised ants.
Bomb craters created by previous softening-up attacks had disturbed the water table and turned the ground engineers’ handiwork into gigantic mud pies. A desperate construction commander ordered Harvey’s P-40 pushed aside before the concussed pilot could extricate himself. The remaining squadron aircraft managed to find compact spots and finished their flights correct side up. As for Harvey’s favored airplane, A-29-141 (USAAF 42-10487), became a grub-infested, creeper-covered, insect tenement.
Recovery & restoration
Decades later, warbird enthusiasts began searching the world for restorable Curtiss P-40s. In 2001, Australian restoration expert Robert Greinert discovered Harvey’s relatively intact A-29-141. After dragging his find into daylight, he passed the remains to New Zealand’s Pioneer Aero Restorations in Ardmore. Founded in the early 1990s, the organization knew fighter airplanes well after completing seven P-40 rebuilds since 1998.
Acquainted with wrecks and rarities pried from swamps and jungles, the patient New Zealanders ignored the stench of rotting land snails in Gruenert’s shipping containers and went to work. After scraping and pressure-washing surviving components of what turned out to be a Curtiss P-40N-1 version, the Pioneer Aero artists printed a 20-page inventory. Some items, they realized, such as engine mounts, radiators and engine controls, could be rebuilt but others, like fuel tanks and pulleys, needed new fabrication and all rubber- and plastic-covered wires needed to be replaced.
Meanwhile, in Canada, retired Cognos CEO and philanthropist Michael U. Potter turned his personal warbird stable into the Vintage Wings of Canada collection at Gatineau-Ottawa Executive Airport (CYND). Potter and like-minded historians initiated the “In His Name” program to adorn chosen aircraft with painted panels commemorating World War II air force veterans. When Potter suggested a Heritage Flights subdivision to generate revenue through fighter rides, a two-place P-40 became the organization’s goal, and Desert Air Force fighter ace, Wing Commander James Francis Edwards—who amassed 20 aerial victories during a 14-month tenure in North Africa—became an honoree.
Word of mouth in the warbird community brought Harvey’s salvaged airplane to the group’s attention and within weeks, member David Hadfield and wife Robin travelled to New Zealand for negotiations with Pioneer Aero to finish A29-114 to vintage specifications.
On April 25, 2009, New Zealand test pilot Frank Parker flew the first flight of civil-lettered ZK-VWC since jungle herbage had abruptly enveloped Harvey’s P-40 65 years before. Parker collated a collection of suggestions that would be reviewed when the aircraft reached Canada. He warned of harsh engine power application raising the tail with consequent propeller damage. During takeoff, smooth throttle reduced a tendency to swing left, and full right rudder
Vintage Wings researchers decided to reproduce the camouflage of a No. 260 Squadron P-40N-1 lettered HS-B in Edwards’ logbook.
Canadian first flights
Hadfield undertook the first Canadian flight of the “airborne jewel” on July 12, 2009. Logbooks for re-registered C-FVWC indicated 6,148 lb. empty and a 9,352 lb. takeoff weight. Pioneer’s 134-page Aircraft Flight Manual (AFM) showed that the complicated 12-cylinder powerplant needed 18.62 gallons of glycol-water mixture and eight gallons of oil to function. Other necessary liquids included two gallons of hydraulic fluid in a two-outlet tank behind the fuselage access door. More data explained that the Allison engine produced 51 Hg and 3,000 rpm on takeoff.
Maximum fuel capacity was placarded at 85 gallons since one tank had been removed to ensure space for the rear seat. For start, pilots activated what Australians called a “doper” or primer and, in cruise, the Allison averaged 40 gallons per hour. A gun sight with rheostat and circuit breakers had been installed for authenticity. Although flight school Cessna 152s could be difficult to see from a fast-moving fighter airplane, Hadfield had no plans of attack.
Gatineau-Ottawa airport’s limp windsock indicated calm winds but if crosswind exceeded the 10mph limit, Hadfield’s flight would have been aborted. In this case, 17 seconds after advancing throttle, the powerful Allison sounded more like a cluster of barking British bulldogs than an assemblage of oiled parts and combusting 100/130 gasoline. As wheels retracted rearward into the wells, each assembly rotated through 90 degrees with mechanical assist from pivoting collars. Canvas protector sacks or wheel bags reduced impact. Oddly, no provision existed to lock the tailwheel up. Only when Hadfield selected a landing gear control handle to “off” on the cockpit’s left side could he, or Harvey before him, ensure it did not drop into the airflow and create drag.
“The aircraft gained speed quickly and attempted to lift off before the tail was raised. At that point, the tail was positively raised to increase the control and the aircraft allowed to fly off,” Hadfield reported. “Un-stick speed was quite low (100mph). Directional control was good. Flaps were not used.”
Following a 150mph climb to 6,000 feet, Hadfield adjusted power to 25 Hg and 2,500 rpm for a 180mph cruise. Throughout the 30-minute flight, he jotted meticulous notes and reviewed Parker’s suggestions while monitoring temperatures and electrics. A 28.5-volt engine-driven generator and 24-volt battery provided power to hydraulic flaps and undercarriage as well as the Curtiss-Reid electric propeller. The AFM described procedures to follow if locked brakes, gear failure or, as in Harvey’s situation, a bomb crater caused an upside-down air show.
“In the unlikely event of an aircraft roll-over with the front canopy fully closed, the aircraft can be vacated by using the axe located in the rear cockpit floor to smash out the right hand knock-out windows of the rear cockpit,” the AFM stated.
Like most professionals sampling unfamiliar airplanes, Hadfield performed a series of stalls to familiarize himself with slow speed characteristics for approach and landing. Other P-40 pilots described the maneuver as benign and similar to North American Aviation T-6 Texans with mild wing drop. However, high-time aviator Mark Hanna pointed out that if pilots allowed stick buffeting to “persevere,” the follow-up could become an unsettling event. Hadfield never experienced problems, but added that accelerated stalls could bring wing drop to 90 degrees and perhaps invert the airplane. A wartime technical order confirmed their comments:
“If full left rudder is applied at low speeds under full power conditions, a reversal of rudder load may be experienced, and in extreme cases, the rudder will tend to lock over,” the order read. “The airplane will then stall and the nose will immediately drop beyond the vertical with consequent risk of inverted spinning. This condition does not occur in any normal maneuver nor with the rudder over to the right.”
Pioneer proffered bail-out advice: A pilot reduced to 140mph and jettisoned the sectioned canopy. Next, the AFM suggested standing on the seat, holding the sides with both hands and placing the left foot on the right front cockpit corner. For the grand finale, the unfortunate individual completed the drama by diving head first and leaving behind a multi-million dollar specimen of earthbound sculpture that would probably pass his parachute.
No Vintage Wings pilots have abandoned aircraft. Aware that his notes, intuition and experience suggested a gear-down, full-flap, 78mph stall speed, Hadfield established final approach with safety margin at 102mph. Boost pump on, landing gear warning horn tested, he confirmed wheels down in positive lock after waiting for the 175mph maximum lowering speed. Wings level and accustomed to tail wheel operations in DH.83 Fox Moths, Waco Taperwings and his personally-owned Fairchild 24, Hadfield “wheeled” both mains on simultaneously instead of a three-point landing. The eight-foot, 21-inch wheel tread helped keep straight as he waited patiently before applying sensitive toe brakes.
“Directional control was very good during the rollout while the tail was up as it lowered onto the tailwheel and as the aircraft transformed to tailwheel steering,” Hadfield said. “The brakes were lightly tested to ensure they worked, then the aircraft was allowed to decelerate naturally to near taxi speed. About 4,000 feet of runway were used.”
Other than slight tailwheel shimmering and a need to monitor coolant temperatures, Curtiss P-40N-1 C-FVWC’s initial flight proved successful. Observers considered the airplane a “stunner” and Oshkosh judges later showed their agreement with a Best Fighter Award. No one could place a monetary value on Curtiss’s magnificent creation, although the Buffalo factory billed the military services $36,047 in 1941 for E-models.
A common bond
Vintage Wings P-40 chief pilot David Hadfield has been known as an aviation enthusiast since his airline father gifted him a plastic seaplane model at age six. As a teenager, he flew his first solo in 1975 and soon began searching for a flying job. Turned down many times, persistence led Hadfield to an airline cockpit and a log book showing 25,000 hours by 2019. His passion for zinc chromate and snapping radial engine magnetos attracted him to older airplanes. While donating tailwheel checkouts in WW II trainers, Hadfield discovered Vintage Wings of Canada.
The operational plan of founder Michael U. Potter “to educate, commemorate and inspire” Canada’s youth caught Hadfield’s interest and he became an active flying member. Exotic Spitfires, Hawker Hurricanes, P-51s, and Westland Lysanders added to excitement beyond his day-job Boeing 777-300ERs.
Restoration of the P-40N-1 Kittyhawk led to a personal meeting with Retired Wing Commander James Francis “Stocky” Edwards. Discussions with Canada’s highest scoring surviving fighter pilot led to deeper respect for the contributions of such men and women.
Stocky was a stellar shooter, Hadfield recalled., Hadfield recalled. “He was an instinctive deflection expert. He was never taught—just a natural , and this was recognized. After his first tour finished, they made him a gunnery instructor in Cairo/Alexandria before his posting in Italy. He would coach students as they fired at the drogue from a Harvard; then, to finish up, he’d take control and do the same run, but inverted.
“He had a ball yaw indicator special-mounted up near the gunsight so he could quickly double-check before pulling the trigger. Any slip or skid meant a miss. He was bounced countless times on desert ops because the 109s were up at 25,000 and the P-40s below 15,000—the Allison never got the turbocharger it was meant to have and P-40s were never issued oxygen. Stocky was never bounced unawares. He always saw them coming. His eyesight was perfect and he was tough as nails and never even got sick out there. He would turn into them but if the 109s stayed to tangle, Stocky never lost and was never shot down. And the P-40 was a very good machine down low—low aileron forces and very rapid rate of roll surpassed by only a few types.
BY ROBERT S. GRANT
PHOTOS BY ERIC DUMMIGAN, ROBERT S. GRANT, & DAVID HADFIELD